Wildfire, drought relief from rain drenching south-central US may only be temporary

By Alex Sosnowski, AccuWeather senior meteorologist
April 21, 2018, 11:45:38 PM EDT

A storm is bringing drenching rain along a 1,500-mile swath, including areas in drought and experiencing dangerous wildfires in the southern United States, into early next week.

A large portion of the Southwest and southern High Plains is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought monitor, and a significantly elevated wildfire risk according to the National Storm Prediction Center.

As of Friday, large active fires had consumed more than 420,000 acres over the southwestern and south-central U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The Rhea Fire burning in western Oklahoma has charred more than 289,000 acres alone, according to Inciweb. As of Saturday, it was only 29 percent contained.

While the Southwest and High Plains are normally an arid part of the nation, the region relies on nearby mountain snowstorms and summer thunderstorms for green pastures and water supply.

However, this winter, mountain snowfall in the region has been less than 50 percent of average in many areas. Rainfall outside of the mountains has ranged from 5 to 40 percent of normal over the southern High Plains since Jan. 1, 2018.

Rhea Fire1

Flames tower over the dry countryside in Oklahoma as The Rhea Fire raged on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (Photo/Bob Johnson)

The combination of dry brush, dry air, surging temperatures and especially strong winds have created ideal conditions for wildfires to erupt and spread.

Rain to aid in Plains wildfire containment, bring only short-term relief

Through Saturday, the southern storm will bring much needed rain to at least part of the region. Rainfall is not expected to be earth-shattering, but 0.25 of an inch to 1.50 inches of rain over a large swath will not hurt.

This should be enough rain to help green up dry pastures and brush. Since green vegetation contains much more moisture than dry brush, it should be much harder for fires to ignite in an area that has been hardest hit by wildfires in recent weeks.

South Central Regional 4.21 AM

A relatively small amount of snow is also forecast over the mountains, on the order of several inches.

"This green-up is likely to be temporary, however, even if a second storm brings sporadic rainfall prior to the end of April," AccuWeather Lead-Long Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok cautioned.

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"We expect areas from western Texas and eastern New Mexico to western Oklahoma, western Kansas and eastern Colorado to have a long, hot summer," Pastelok said. "Potentially, it could be one of the top-five hottest summers on record."

The risk of wildfires is likely to continue in the long term and and may grow worse.

The greatest impact may occur in cattle grazing lands and the water supply in the region.

"If there's not enough grass for the cattle, ranchers may have to sell off herds, which may lead to an initial drop in beef prices, followed by a significant climb in prices, depending on how extensive the drought gets," Pastelok said.

"Thunderstorms from the southwestern U.S. monsoon may turn things around farther west over New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado later this summer," Pastelok said.

The swath of rain from the storm will continue to move eastward into early next week.

As the storm moves along, it will draw more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Rainfall amounts are forecast to increase along the way.

Static South Rain 3 pm

Rainfall from parts of central Oklahoma and northeastern Texas to Louisiana and central Arkansas may reach 3 inches in some locations through Saturday night.

Enough rain is likely to fall to foil outdoor plans and cause difficult travel conditions for motorists and localized flooding.

The storm is scheduled to soak the Southeastern states on Sunday and Monday.

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